Mary Wirth

The history of Pomona Hall, located in Camden, New Jersey, spans almost 335 years.  It predates the American War for Independence from England by 62 years.  Once the center of a 423-acre plantation, it is now surrounded by a residential neighborhood and the original Camden High School, at the intersection of Park Boulevard and Euclid Avenue.  This is the story of that house and of the Cooper family, who built it. 

William Cooper, whose early property deeds identified him as a blacksmith, was a member of the new Religious Society of Friends, established in England in 1660.  As a result of their having severed ties with the Church of England, the Friends (Quakers) were subjected to intense persecution throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century.  They were excluded from most social groups, and found it increasingly difficult to support their families because neighbors and business owners boycotted their services or refused to employ them.  By 1678 William and his wife, Margaret had four pre-adolescent children whom they had to think about.  William began to get his affairs in order, resigned from his local Society Meeting, and prepared to relocate to the colonies in America, where they would not be judged solely by their religious affiliation.

Together with several other Quaker families, the Coopers set sail for America, and landed on the shore of the Delaware River in Burlington, West Jersey, in 1679.  They did not remain there for very long, however.  In 1680 William found a tract of about 300 acres of land south of Burlington near the confluence of the Delaware River and Cooper’s Creek.  According to Charles Boyer, he purchased the tract at Pyne Point (now Camden) in Newton Township “from the proprietors and from the Indian chief Tallacca” (Pomona 5).  This acquisition elevated William’s status to that of yeoman, “one of a class of lesser freeholders, below the gentry who cultivated their own land” (Boyer 3). As such he now belonged to the artisan-yeoman class that is estimated to have made up 80% to 90% of immigrants to the colonies who were not indentured servants.

Joseph, the only one of William and Margaret’s children to survive to adulthood, married and continued to live on his parents’ farm for several years.  In 1691 Joseph Jr. was born on that farm.  Several years later, on June 12, 1697 Joseph the elder purchased a 423-acre farm located on the lower section of Cooper’s Creek, from brothers Joshua and Abraham Carpenter.  In September of 1713 at the age of 22, Joseph Cooper, Jr. married Mary Hudson of Philadelphia.  In the same year he constructed a two-story four-room frame house for his new wife and himself, on his father’s farm.  The following year, on December 18, 1714 his father gave him the entire farm.  About 12 years later, in 1726, the Coopers began to build a brick addition to the original house.  Complete with both cellar and attic, the addition more than doubled the size of the residence.  Joseph and Mary’s initials and the year construction began appear on the chimney of that addition. 

Mary Hudson Cooper died in 1728.  Joseph was a member of the New Jersey Assembly and the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders.  He was the Gloucester County Collector (of taxes), a trustee of the recently built Haddonfield Meeting House and, as a scribe, wrote marriage certificates and maintained the book of births and burials.  He did not remarry for about seven years.  Then he met a Quaker minister, Hannah Dent of Yorkshire, England, who had come to the area on a mission trip in 1732.  They married in 1735.  Hannah too, was very busy.  For as long as she was able, she embarked often on trips to other colonies as well as to Europe on behalf of the Society of Friends.  She outlived her husband, who passed away in 1749.  At the time of his death Joseph was one of the wealthiest men in West Jersey.  His personal estate amounted to more than £1351, which, in today’s U.S. market would translate to $277,284.00.  Joseph was as active in the Society of Friends as he was in politics.  Upon his death, the Haddonfield Meeting recorded, “He was an exemplary friend, and serviceable amongst us in many respects; was generally well respected, careful to rule well his own house.  He departed this life, about the 1st of the eighth month 1749, having express’d a little before, that he had done justly, loved mercy, and hoped he had been careful to walk humbly” (Collection 159).

Having had no children, Joseph Cooper, Jr. bequeathed the property, including one slave, to his youngest brother, Isaac, on the condition that he provide his widow,  Hannah, with a place to live for the rest of her life.  The will specified which room was to be hers and that she must have at her disposal a specific water pump outside of the house.  Hannah did remain with her brother-in-law for a time, but was no longer in residence when she died in 1754.

In 1767 at the age of 19, Isaac’s son, Marmaduke inherited the entire estate when his father died.  It included 14 slaves and some German and French indentured servants.  The reference in the will to so many slaves verifies that during Isaac’s lifetime the status of the estate had changed from that of farm to plantation, since the work thereon was now being performed by resident workers.  Marmaduke remained single until March 20, 1778, on which date he married Mary Jones of Philadelphia.

Although a Quaker like his forebears, Marmaduke took an active part in the patriot activities that preceded the colonies’ war against the Crown, as did many other young Friends.  The Gloucester County Committee of Correspondence, to which he belonged, was responsible for arranging meetings with committees of other counties, to select delegates to a Continental Congress slated to meet in Philadelphia in May of 1775.  Boyer notes that in December of 1776 the Philadelphia Meeting of Suffering issued a recommendation that all Friends “… refuse to submit to … the ordinances of men, to assume… that power of compelling others… to join in carrying on war” (9).  The resolution also introduced an oath of allegiance, to which Marmaduke did not submit until 1783.  This failure on his part to recognize and support the Society’s position in this matter was never addressed by the Philadelphia Meeting.  He was not so lucky later on.

In 1788 Marmaduke initiated another expansion of the house at the southern end.  It is not known whether his slaves contributed to the construction of this addition, since none of the records specify what duties they performed.  By the time the addition was complete, the house was quite large, and the exterior looked as it does today.  It was relatively simple in detail, as was the case in typical Quaker dwellings, given the Society’s aversion to ostentation.  Grand staircases, fancy moldings, porticos and other interior and exterior architectural embellishments were conspicuously absent from the grand house.

Like his uncle before him, however, Marmaduke did allow himself the luxury of having his and Mary’s initials worked into the bricks that comprised the south chimney, one might presume, for posterity.  In the introduction he contributed to Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, John Gillis pointed out that the record of the relationship between memory and identity “can be traced through various forms of commemoration…” (5).  By the time Marmaduke inherited the family estate his father and his father’s brother had already established themselves as men of social and political importance and influence in West Jersey.  Since they were Quakers, commissioning portraits to invoke memories of who they were, was out of the question, for religious reasons.  Incorporating one’s initials and a date on the exterior wall of a building, however, would be an excellent way to remind neighbors and acquaintances of his status in the community, while ensuring that future generations would also know of him, if not of his social standing. Surely, a glance at the chimney would be sufficient to convince the onlooker that at the very least, he was a man of means.  One might conclude that it would give Marmaduke a sense of pride to know that today, 225 years after he completed it, his great house would be considered by many to be the finest example of an eighteenth century plantation house in the state of New Jersey.

Volunteers at the Camden County Historical Society believe that it might have been Marmaduke who named the estate Pomona Hall.  Records show that in his later years he was widely recognized as a breeder of fine draft horses.  It is possible he gave his home a name so that it would be easier for potential buyers to find it when they came to inspect his stock.  What is known is that the property is identified as Pomona Hall on Hill’s Map of Philadelphia and Environs of 1809.

When Marmaduke died in 1797 at the age of 49, his son, Isaac, who was known as Isaac Cooper of Philadelphia, inherited Pomona Hall.  He rented it over the years, to various tenants, two of whom were Joseph Hatch and John Ward, but there is no record of his having occupied it himself at any time after his father’s death. 

Isaac died in 1844, unmarried and without having left a will.  All of his properties were vested to his sisters and administered by the Isaac Cooper Estate until 1857.  On October 27th of that year the properties were all divided among his heirs.

The history of the Cooper family and Pomona Hall would not be complete without a discussion of its role in slavery.  More than one branch of the Cooper family, as well as the Quakers in general, played active parts in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania slave trade. With the exception of wills and inventory lists compiled post mortem, there is no written record of Joseph Jr. and Isaac’s ownership of slaves.  More information exists relative to Marmaduke’s involvement.

Cargo ships with such names as Hannah, William & Mary, and Nancy transported men, women and children who had been captured and/or purchased from African tribes, up the Delaware River.  Those same ships carried Madeira wine from Spain and rum from Barbados.  They would dock at such places as Benjamin Cooper’s Ferry, Daniel Cooper’s Ferry, Samuel Cooper’s Ferry and Robert’s Ferry (collectively known as Cooper’s Ferry) in what would eventually become Camden.  During the eighteenth century this area was the center of a slave holding agricultural society dominated by the Quaker landowners of West Jersey.  Newspapers advertised slave previews and sales right next to ads for such household items as brass hinges and cooking utensils.  Many of the slave auctions took place on the docks, close to the ships where the captives would be kept until they were sold.

Given the fact that at least two newspaper ads exist that offer rewards for the capture and return of Marmaduke’s slaves and indentured servants, one might easily conclude that he was anything but a benevolent “master”. Documents such as slave transactions and the one dealing with responsibility for slaves pictured here are on display at the Camden County Historical Society.  Leg irons and hand and neck shackles add to the feeling one experiences when he studies the other documents and artifacts displayed in the exhibit.  Former Camden County Historical Society President, Richard Pillatt opined in an article posted on the Society’s website on May 4, 2003, “The more we learn about Marmaduke Cooper, the more it is clear that he was a very cold fish who viewed his slaves and servants as merely another kind of livestock” (Levins).

Sleeping arrangements for slaves in the North differed somewhat from those in the South.  Whereas southern slaves were housed in rows of buildings surrounding the main house, those in the North usually slept in close proximity to where they worked.  They often slept in attics, cellars, outbuildings, back rooms, or even closets in the main house – any nook or cranny that would render them virtually invisible to family and guests.  The nanny slept near the children; the cook usually found a place to sleep in the kitchen, where she could monitor the fire, or in a room directly over the kitchen.  Quarters often doubled as storage rooms for such things as spinning wheels, saddles, garden tools and the like.  Room had to be made for the thin straw-stuffed mattresses on which the slaves slept.

During the early part of the eighteenth century young Quakers began to protest the Society of Friends’ position on slavery, citing its teaching that God made us all in His image.  Finally, in 1754, the Philadelphia Meeting published a statement stating those sentiments.  By 1758 the Meeting agreed to punish Friends who were still engaged in the purchase and trade of slaves.  The minutes of the 1776 meeting reveal that the Society of Friends had adopted a policy prohibiting slave ownership by Quakers. 

In 1777 a joint committee from the Haddonfield and Woodbury Meetings reported Marmaduke as owning and refusing to emancipate several slaves.  Despite three years of “urgent advice and entreaty” by the Society, Marmaduke refused to budge (Boyer 6).  Responding to his arrogant insubordination, the Society formally disowned him in September of 1880.  Although he finally initiated formal procedures to free his slaves on December 17, 1792, it is not clear whether the Society ever reinstated Marmaduke’s membership.  The record does show that he left $400 to the Society of Friends in his will, and specified that it was to be applied to the cost of building a new meeting house in Newton.

Over the years since Marmaduke’s son Isaac’s death, Pomona Hall has been owned and occupied by several of their heirs, as well as some renters.  In 1901 the Parkside Land Company acquired the estate, and rented the house to several different families, before selling it to the City of Camden in 1915.  By the time the City leased it to the fledgling Camden County Historical Society in 1924 it had been abused and neglected for many years.  The house’s exterior had not suffered much over the years, but mold, critters and do-it-yourself handy men had taken their toll.  Fireplaces had been reduced in size or sealed.  More than 20 layers of paint hid the fact that some of these fire boxes had been adorned with Delft tiles from Holland.  The tiles from one fireplace had been removed and sold, later to be found in the northern part of the state.  Dishes, some of which were found intact, had been tossed into the yard and buried for decades. 

Thanks to many public and private grants and much perseverance over the years, the work to restore Pomona Hall to its 1788 appearance was finally completed in 1981.  Today a tour of the house gives visitors an idea of how New Jersey’s eighteenth century gentry lived.  At Christmas time, if one times his visit well, he might even witness a meal being cooked or bread being baked in the large kitchen fireplace. 

During a visit to Pomona Hall in May of 2003, former New Jersey Secretary of State, Regena L. Thomas praised the Historic Society for its work in providing the public with a slavery records exhibit.  Ms. Thomas observed, “It is very important that we know and preserve our history, especially for the young people in our community.  We don’t have to dwell on the negative.  To know that slaves occupied this land … and were able to keep it going, and that they spent every waking hour trying to get free should be an encouragement, particularly for urban Camden” (Levins).

Pomona Hall is Camden’s own jewel.  It could have been used to support Pierre Nora’s thesis in Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.  The house, along with the twentieth century addition that houses the library of the Camden County Historical Society, can take us back to another time in New Jersey’s history that brought out the best and worst in people, while providing a “center of historical scholarship” available for research (Nora 22).  As Camden’s Lieu de Mémoire it can serve as a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

Works cited

Boyer, Charles.  Pomona Hall: The Story of an Old House and its Builders. CCHS Boyer Collection, Box 12, MSS #297.

A Collection of Memorials Concerning Divers deceased Ministers and others of the people called Quakers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Parts adjacent, from Nearly the First Settlement Thereof to the year 1787.  Philadelphia. 1787. Print.

Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Ed. John R. Gillis. Princeton. Princeton University Press. 1994.

Levins, Hoag. “Adding Slaves to Pomona Hall.” Historic Camden Camden County Historical Society. 4 May 2003. Web. 17 March 2013.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations Spring 1989:  7 – 23. Trans. Marc Roudebush. Print.

“Pomona Hall.” Wikipedia. 15 January 1013. Web. 17 March 2013.